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Prison Labor Bails Out State and County Budgets

Across the nation, state and local governments are facing gaping holes in their budgets. As a result many are turning to cheap or free prison labor, and in some cases prisoners have taken the place of free-world citizens laid off due to budget cuts. State and local agencies have increasingly come to benefit from – and rely upon – low or no-cost prison workers.

Unlike the PIECP programs discussed in this issue’s cover story, the prison labor programs described below produce goods or provide services for government agencies through state-run prison industries, work release programs or community corrections, not in conjunction with private-sector businesses.

For fiscal year 2009, the state of Ohio cut its budget by $1.9 billion. Statehouse operations at the Capitol were slashed $310,000; consequently, 17 employees were laid off. To fill that void, the state has proposed using seven prisoners – five as janitors and two as groundskeepers.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association filed a grievance in an effort to stop the plan, but some state officials feel there’s no other alternative. “Get the money reinstated, and we’ll bring the employees back,” said William Carleton, executive director of the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board. “I’m not the one who cut the budget.”

The use of prison labor to support government facilities and services is nothing new. For example, prisoners in Iowa have found themselves building prison cells. When the demand for prison industry-made furniture declined, between 50 and 100 prisoner workers found themselves out of a job. But the public’s persistent lock ‘em up mentality created a de-mand for steel jail cells.

“Over time you can pick through a concrete wall ... but it’s virtually impossible to pick through a gauge steel wall,” said Roger Baysden, director of Iowa Prison Industries. Each cell costs about $15,000 to manufacture and requires welding training for about 30 prisoners. The cells will eventually be sent to Oklahoma.

Kansas is profiting from cabins built by prisoners for use in state parks. According to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, cabin rental has increased over 150 percent in the past year.

“The public is demonstrating the demand for these,” said Mike Hayden, Secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Parks. “With the economy, more people are staying closer to home. A lot of people want to go camping, but they don’t want to sleep in a tent, don’t want to sleep on the ground, don’t have an RV, and this is a great option for them to be at the lake.”
Prisoners build about a dozen cabins a year as part of a vocational program at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. Each cabin costs about $40,000 to construct.

“It was the perfect fit,” said Mark Stock, who coordinates the cabin-building project. “From a correctional standpoint, it is educational. They are trying to teach these people a skill and the cabin is a byproduct of the education.”

Hawaii prisoners are being put to work making playground equipment for the state’s Department of Education. “Just with the inmate labor alone, this is a huge cost savings,” stated Matthew Kaneshiro, administrator for Hawaii Correctional Industries.

Kaneshiro said he expected an influx of requests for prison work projects due to the state’s budget gap. “We know, whenever the economy goes down, our program goes up.” Therefore, prison officials are trying to move more prisoners into the industry work programs, which pay $.50 an hour.

In some cases the desire for prison labor takes on a personal tone that is measured in more than just money. The prisoner cleaning crew for the town hall in Charleston, Maine enjoys a variety of snacks while they work, courtesy of Selectwoman Terri-Lynn Hall. “I also make ‘em turkeys, bake ‘em hams, and serve spaghetti with homemade sauce,” she said.

Maine is one of several states where communities have fought to keep prisons open. In December 2008, Governor John Baldacci proposed closing one of two housing units at the Charleston Correctional Facility due to budget cuts, a move that would have cost the town many of its work-release prisoners.

As part of their institutional jobs, state prisoners maintain Charleston’s five cemeteries, break apart beaver dams, hang holiday decorations and perform a variety of other tasks.

“Oh my goodness, gracious, they are such an asset – they are our public-works department,” said Selectwoman Hall. In 2008, Charleston’s prisoners performed 39,337 hours of community work. [See: PLN, April 2009, p.1].

After lobbying by local residents, Maine officials managed to substitute savings from other areas to avoid closing the unit at Charleston, thereby preserving the town’s free prison labor source.

In Madison County, New York, prisoners from the minimum-security Camp Georgetown, a state facility, generate $200,000 a year for the county by searching through the local landfill looking for recyclable materials. Jim Zecca, director of the county’s solid waste department, expressed sadness when he learned the Governor had proposed closing Camp Georgetown in 2009 due to the state’s budget shortfall. “I just hate to see it go,” he said, noting that putting prisoners to work for the county was better than having them “just sitting and rotting in a jail.”

As in Charleston, supporters of the prison rallied to save Camp Georgetown; they argued that the facility assisted the local community by providing thousands of hours of prisoner labor. Their efforts were successful and the prison was spared the budget axe. It will cost the state $4.3 million to keep Camp Georgetown open, but at least the county will con-tinue to get a free labor source.

Residents of Medical Lake in Washington state also fought to prevent the closure of a nearby prison, the Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women. The facility provides the town with a valuable resource: Prisoner workers.

“We use the inmates to run our recycling center – four women five days a week, seven hours a day,” said city admin-istrator Doug Ross. “I don’t exactly know how we’re going to run it without the [prison] crew.” Medical Lake saves around $150,000 a year due to reduced labor costs.

Thus far, as of February 2010, Pine Lodge has remained open; however, it is slated for closure later this year. Town residents still might be in luck, though, as both Spokane County and the city of Spokane have expressed interest in acquiring the prison for use as a jail, work release program or community corrections center.

Butler County, Kansas lost its source of prison labor when budget cuts resulted in the closure of a minimum-security unit at the El Dorado Correctional Facility in February 2009. It would have cost the county about $1 million a year to re-place the prisoners, who were paid $1.05 per day. Instead, county officials have proposed creating a bus line to transport up to 40 workers from the nearby Winfield Correctional Facility, so they can continue to provide work for the county and city.

“All the [local government] parties are extremely happy we’re not going to lose that labor force,” said Butler County Commissioner Randy Waldorg. “It would have been a huge hit for us.” Prisoners work at the El Dorado State Park, where they mow, weed and repair equipment; they also perform landfill, maintenance and landscaping work for the city of El Dorado. “That’s basically how we can keep our parks up is because of the labor from the prison system,” explained Mayor Tom McKibban.

Other towns have not been as fortunate. In the beginning, the idea of bringing a minimum-security Discipline and Rehabilitation Center (DRC) to downtown Wooster, Ohio was not popular with everyone. “[W]e took a lot of heat” from people against the idea, said Sheriff’s Capt. Charlie Hardeman.

But after the facility had been operating for almost ten years, it had become more appreciated. With budget reductions looming in 2009 there was talk of closing the 74-bed facility, and people were concerned. “Who is going to pick up the litter?” Hardeman asked.

Wooster resident Sandra Hull was one of those originally against the DRC who had changed her mind. “I didn’t really want them there,” she said, but eventually called the prisoners “wonderful neighbors.” They shoveled snow from storefronts in the winter and helped move furniture for the local Habitat for Humanity.

However, the DRC was forced to shut down on March 1, 2009, resulting in a loss of the facility’s largely free labor source. DRC prisoners had performed 214,153 hours of community service work over nearly a decade while the program was in operation.

The closure of the Union Correctional Center in North Carolina also cost the local community inexpensive prison labor. Union operated a work release program in which prisoners were employed at local businesses, and provided work crews for the towns of Monroe and Indian Trail, where prisoners would clean parks, mow grass and pick up trash. But the facility fell victim to the state’s economic crisis, and was forced to shut its doors in October 2009.

North Carolina’s Haywood County Correctional Center, however, was spared. Although also slated for closure, Hay-wood was located in the district of state Senator John Snow, who co-chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety. Senator Snow argued against closing the prison, noting that it provided work crews for roads, schools and local governments.

Further, the Haywood County Commission passed a resolution stating prisoners had provided 12,248 man-hours of labor, which would have cost the county over $80,000 at minimum wage. “Who’s going to keep the highways clean if Haywood Correctional Center closes?” the commissioners asked. The prison remained open, in large part due to its ability to provide a cheap labor source.

It is apparent that prison labor has become an acceptable alternative for state and local governments that want to save money, even when that option may be detrimental to non-incarcerated workers. After all, every job that’s performed by a prisoner, at little or no cost, is a job that’s not available to a free-world employee. Also, sadly, communities and public agencies have become so dependent on incarcerated workers that they lobby against prison closures to preserve their cheap labor pool.

PLN supports fair wages for prisoners, or other benefits such as early release, but has consistently warned that the erosion of everyone’s rights almost always begins with the exploitation of people in prison, who have no political lobby or influence.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the lock ‘em up policies that the U.S. has pursued for decades has come to cost members of the public first their freedom through mass incarceration, then their tax dollars for maintaining our nation’s multi-billion dollar prison industrial complex, and – finally – their jobs.

Sources: Associated Press, Gatehouse News Service,, Wall Street Journal, Wichita Eagle,,, Honolulu Advertiser,

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